Cogs, Compliance and Comformity

by Robert Pondiscio
January 14th, 2010

short blog post on classroom management has ignited a fascinating and at times contentious debate on our expectations for children to behave in certain ways in classrooms.  Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant blog typically concerns itself with technology implementation in schools.  But overhearing a preschool teacher tell her class “Good job!  I like the way you all are staying in line. You’re so good at this!” prompted McLeod to respond with two simple sentences:

The socialization to be a cog in the machine begins early. Woe be it if you don’t stay in line.

This is the most common positive reinforcement trick in the classroom teacher’s bag of trick (I’ve even joked it’s the basis of Race to the Top).  McLeod’s quip implies it’s mindless compliance, but teachers see it differently.  “I don’t see the woe in this, just courtesy, common sense, and safety,” writes one.  Walking quietly in line in preschool shows consideration for the other classes, notes another. “You could say that the teacher should explain WHY being quiet is good in the hallways, but trust me – she did, about 20 times already.”  A third teacher writes,

I can only assume, Scott, that next time you go to the movies or the grocery store, you’ll stand randomly by a check stand and hope someday it will be your turn. A queue is not necessarily a means to transform us into lemmings.

And this:

Sometimes it’s about safety. We drive in lines, not clumps. Conformity for the sake of someone else wielding their power is a problem. Conformity for the sake of everyone’s well being is a good thing.

Most of the commenters on the blog, presumably educators, see nothing sinister at work.  But a few see conformity and coercion in the teacher’s praise for her young charges’ ability to stand quietly in line.  ”If we only occassionally asked for mindless compliance from children, but most of the time encouraged them to be active participants in their learning, I would be lot more satisfied,” writes one.

I’m with the common sense crowd.  Lack of self-control and consideration for others was the biggest impediment to learning in my classroom and in my school.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a thirteen.   A little self-discipline and self-control goes a long way.  And besides, isn’t lining up and walking silently a form of group work and cooperative learning?



Alternative Class for Disrupters?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2009

Schools won’t improve, a Florida teacher argues,  unless there are alternative classes or activities ”for those who don’t care to learn or can’t, or won’t, let anyone else learn.” Until these needs are addressed,” writes Junie Rabin in the Sun Sentinel “do not expect changes in drop-out rates or second-class education. Forget your headlines promulgating new accountability standards, forget “no child left behind,” forget bonuses and self-serving plaques on the wall.”

Rubin cites a familiar litany of issues–indifferent students who are not academically prepared, but have been passed along, for example–but the worst, she says are the disrupters “who turn the best lessons into a fiasco. Equally impossible is transferring them out. Evaluate my performance, how I inspire my students, with the addition of the new parolee whose judge decreed he either goes back to school or back to jail,” she writes. 

One wonders what Ms. Rubin would make of this New York Times editorial.

Classroom Management Problems? Hire a Bouncer

by Robert Pondiscio
November 8th, 2009

At Ed Policy Thoughts, Corey Bunje Bower looks at a letter to the editor in the New York Times from a former teacher, who suggests the way to improve public education is to hire a ‘bouncer’ for every classroom to handle disruptive students.  Corey is skeptical about the bouncer idea but points out “discipline was, far and away, the biggest problem in my school . . . and the main reason I left teaching.” 

Frequent commenter Brian Rude suggests teachers sometimes need extra help with discipline in the classroom just like a stalled car sometimes needs a wrecker.  “The wrecker provides a source of external power when needed, power in abundance, but only on those occasional times when the car cannot rescue itself,” he writes.  “So applied to classroom discipline, a wrecker would be some way to bring in an excess of control from an external source to impose very tight control of a class once in a while when needed.”

Elsewhere, writing in the Montreal Gazette, high school teacher Freda Lewkowicz observes that the ability to effectively discipline students and control the school environment is the difference between private and public schools.  Public schools, she writes, should have the same right as private schools to expel students.

Public schools don’t expel, even after repeated serious offences, while private schools do.  Parents need to ask themselves why only private schools have this right to create a positive, nurturing and safe learning environment for all. All students deserve this, don’t they? The manacles thrust on public schools forbid them to use tough love….Most parents are pro-discipline, pro-safety, pro-high standards and anti-bullying. Public schools should be allowed to free themselves from the shackles of ineffective discipline and deliver these goods for free.

In U.S. schools, of course, discipline is reflexively viewed through its impact on the disruptor, rarely the disrupted.  I’ve long wondered if the ability to control their learning environment isn’t the X Factor that allows high functioning charters to do so well.  This, to me, was one of the unwritten lessons of David Whitman’s Sweating the Small Stuff:  Getting the school environment right matters, and that’s hard to do without the ability to expel.   The usual counter-argument is that “no excuses” charters have low expulsion rates, so that’s not what’s happening.  I’m not sure I agree.

The real power of consequences comes not from their execution, but from the certainty that they can and will be used.  This simple premise explains why we never had a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union and why KIPP expels so few students.  The change in behavior comes from the the potential bad actor’s knowing he won’t get away with it.  Deterrence works.  If the price to be paid is too high, a rational decision can be made that chronic misbehavior is not worth it. 

Student discipline will probably never become the issue in ed policy that some teachers–and lots of ex-teachers–might wish.  But it should be recognized as a major impediment to student achievement.  The homily that effective instruction engages all learners at all times is lovely, but doesn’t reflect the reality many teachers face.  Indeed, I have long believed that the achievement gap is in large measure a time on-task gap.  Countless hours in chaotic schools are lost to disruption.

Britain Prepares a Crackdown on Student Discipline

by Robert Pondiscio
April 15th, 2009

A British government study into classroom behavior calls for holding parents accountable for their child’s classroom behavior, including fines for condoning truancy.  “More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Telegraph reports.  ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”

The conclusions are presented in a major review by Sir Alan Steer, the Government’s leading behaviour expert. They came as teachers warned that existing methods were failing as a “reward culture” seen in banks was spreading to schools. Jules Donaldson, from the NASUWT teachers’ union, claimed some headteachers were fuelling the problem by handing out prizes if children promise to behave instead of setting proper boundaries.

“Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls, Britain’s Schools Secretary. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school. That means we must all play our part and back our teachers when they use their powers to keep good order.  Everyone needs to share the responsibility of maintaining discipline, including governing bodies and parents. Where parents are unable to do this, it’s right that local authorities should consistently use parenting contracts as a way to support and help parents face up to their responsibilities.”

A teacher’s union survey of 10,000 teachers in Britain shows an average of 50 minutes of lost classroom each day due to misbehavior.

Making Bad Choices

by Robert Pondiscio
December 2nd, 2008

A colleague of mine, a kindergarten teacher, has an arch and winning way of describing bad or questionable behavior or just plain stupidity by people who should know better.  Using the language and tone of her classroom, she will point out how someone “is making a bad choice.”

It seems lots of people, as Ms. Pearson would say, are making bad choices.  A national survey of nearly 30,000 high school students shows that 30 percent admit to stealing from a store in the past year, while two-thirds have cheated on a test.  Against the available evidence, “93 percent were satisfied with their personal ethics and character,” as Joanne Jacobs notes.

Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham says as Americans, we’re not shocked by the survey results because “it’s impossible to be shocked without first being judgmental. And in contemporary America, the only remaining universal sin is to declare anyone else’s behavior sinful.”

When the bullets fly in Dorchester or the blood spills at Wal-Mart, we crank up the Great American Excuse Machine and let fly: Dorchester is violent because of poverty. Scared Americans trample each other at Wal-Mart because of the terrible “Bush economy.” Our kids cheat because academic standards are too high, etc., etc.

“Here’s an idea,” says Graham.  “Let’s try holding someone responsible for his own actions for a change. It wouldn’t be a shock. It would be a revolution.” 

Maybe fewer of us would make bad choices.

“Conclusive Evidence” of Harmful Effects of Violent Video Games

by Robert Pondiscio
November 3rd, 2008

Research in the U.S. and Japan indicates children who play violent video games show increased physical aggression months afterward.  The study in the journal Pediatrics examined the content of games, how often they are played and aggressive behaviors later in a school year. 

Craig A. Anderson, a psychology professor at Iowa State University said the study shows a similiar effect in both countries.  “When you find consistent effects across two very different cultures, you’re looking at a pretty powerful phenomenon,” he tells the Washington Post. “One can no longer claim this is somehow a uniquely American phenomenon. This is a general phenomenon that occurs across cultures.”

The study in the United States showed an increased likelihood of getting into a fight at school or being identified by a teacher or peer as being physically aggressive five to six months later in the same school year, the Post reports.  

“We now have conclusive evidence that playing violent video games has harmful effects on children and adolescents,” Anderson said.

Drugs for Thugs

by Robert Pondiscio
October 1st, 2008

“Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!”


From the mother country, comes word that teenage thugs could be suffering from a mental illness caused by a hormonal imbalance.  A Cambridge University study of boys aged between 14 and 18 found a link between levels of the stress hormone cortisol and anti-social behaviour, London’s Daily Mail reports.

Cortisol is produced in higher amounts at times of stress and is thought to cause more cautious behaviour, helping people to keep a lid on their temper and any violent impulses.  But in delinquent youths levels of the hormone tend not to rise when they are put in a high pressure or aggressive environment, the 18-month study found.  Its findings point to the possibility of drugs being used in the future to control teenagers’ behaviour.

And while we’re poking around in the chemistry lab that is our body, here’s something else to ponder: another report out of Britain today raises the issue of whether there’s a genetic component to poor reading ability.

Cell Phones Linked to Behavior Problems in Children

by Robert Pondiscio
July 30th, 2008

Children whose mothers use cell phones frequently during pregnancy and who are themselves cell phone users are 80% more likely to have behavior problems.

“It’s a wonderful technology and people are certainly going to be using it more and more,” Dr. Leeka Kheifets of the UCLA School of Public Health, who helped conduct the study, tells Reuters.  “We need to be looking into what are the potential health effects and what are ways to reduce risks should there be any.”